Becoming a Critical Reader: Questions to Ask About Original Research

When most people think of reading research, they think of reading an original research study. And there are plenty of those published in journals all the time. Original research generally falls into two main categories: quantitative research and qualititative research. It’s really too bad the terms are so similar, because it can be easy to confuse the two words, when the kinds of research are actually very different.

Quantitative research looks at hard numbers. There will be lots of statistical analysis of data. These are your drug trials, your complication rates, your outcome data. The information the researcher gathers will be counted, measured, or categorized. Quantity is so important in this kind of research, it gives quantitative research its name.

Qualitative research is more about gaining insight, understanding experiences, or learning how societies and systems function. These are done through interviews, observation, etc. It gives voice to the study participants, and very often you’ll find lots of quotes from study participants in the articles. Since qualitative research looks to go deeper into the meaning of events, study sizes are often much smaller. Amy has written a great article on why qualitative research is valuable, and if you haven’t read it, you’ll find it is well worth it.

And then there are studies that are a combination of the two. A good example of this is the recent PLACE study on what happens when you take the bed out of the birth room. In this piece of original research, the authors looked at both quantitative data – the medical outcomes (like cesarean rates, APGAR scores, rates of pitocin use, etc.) and the qualitative data (how the mothers, nurses, and midwives/doctors felt about the change).

This study is also a good example of a pilot study. A pilot study is a small study, not big enough to reach any statistical significance (if it is a quantitative study). The whole point of a pilot study is to find out if the study design will work for a large scale study. Because this was a pilot study, the qualitative portion (which focused on how well this change would be received) was vitally important. In the conclusion, you’ll read:

Our next trial will use a different mattress, which does not promote easier access to the woman (and thus to the application of constraining technologies), but which does make it physically more comfortable for practitioners to give care and for women to use.

This decision was based on the qualitative portion of the study. Without the qualitiative portion, the researchers would not have known that the staff thought the mattress was too heavy. The quantitative portions of the study, (where the researchers looked at birth outcomes, length of labor, etc.) showed promise and no increase in problems. Since the researchers encountered a lot or resistance from staff, they wrote that “the pilot trial results may increase the comfort level of other staff members.”

Another way to look at the study is to decide if it is a prospective study or a retrospective study. A prospective study is one that starts before the variable being studied. Let’s use the topic of pitocin induction as a variable.

prospective study of pitocin induction would start while the moms are still pregnant. Researchers would recruit the women as study participants and divide them into groups. Some would be induced, some would not, and the researchers would collect data before, during and after the induction. A prospective quantitative study would look at the data on things like timing of the induction, length of labor, cesarean rates, etc. A prospective qualitative study might interview the mother before and after, or record the birth and analyze what she says about her experience during the labor, etc.

retrospective study is one that begins after the fact. It looks back on what has already happened. A retrospective quantitative study on pitocin induction might go back and look at all the births in a certain hospital over a 3 month period of time and look at those induced by pitocin to spontaneous labors. Researchers could compare the timing of the induction, length of labor, cesarean rates, etc. A retrospective qualitative study might find 15 women who experienced a pitocin induction in the last year and ask them to describe their birth experience to the researcher.

Both prospective and retrospective studies have their strengths and weaknesses, and we’ll get more into that in our methodologies section, but for now, just think about the two as you read original research.

In summary, with original research, you’ll want to determine if the study is:

  • Qualitative, quantitative, or a combination
  • Large enough to reach a statistical conclusion or a pilot study
  • Prospective or retrospective

In our next two articles we’ll take a closer look at analyzing qualitative and quantitative research.

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